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Forsyth United Way tackles graduation rate

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Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Nearly three in 10 Forsyth County ninth-graders fail to graduate from high school in four years, limiting their earning power and moving them
closer to poverty and prison, United Way of Forsyth County says.

That four-year graduation rate, which trails only Durham’s among North Carolina’s five biggest counties, also makes it tougher for Forsyth to attract and keep good employers, United Way says.

To reverse the economic prospects of the county and its failing high-school students, United Way has launched a collaborative initiative to increase the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2018, part of a larger effort by the agency to spur change in addressing serious health-and-human-services issues the county faces.

“One of our strengths is bringing the community together around issues,” says Eric Aft, vice president for community planning and investment at United Way. “We want to focus that energy on these critical issues facing our community.”

Using funds it raises in its annual drive without reducing the dollars it spends on its partner agencies, United Way will invest $705,000 in a pilot graduation-rate initiative that initially will focus on Parkland High School and its biggest feeder school, Philo Middle School.

Over four years, United Way expects to spend another $2 million on the graduation-rate initiative, which is expected to expand to other schools in the county.

For the pilot project, the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina will serve as lead agency, working with Family Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Winston Salem/Forsyth County School System.

The partner agencies will focus on key factors tied to high school graduation, including attendance, academic performance and family involvement.

In collaboration with the school system, for example, the YMCA will provide tutoring, oversee programs designed to prevent truancy, and offer summer-enrichment camps to help students move from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school.

Working with Parkland High, the YMCA in the first two weeks of January coordinated an intensive tutoring program to prepare 130 students for their end-of-quarter tests, up from 50 who participated in the tutoring program a year ago, Aft says.

Family Services also will provide family counseling programs, including activities focusing on addressing challenges involving children, family conflicts and financial issues.

Big Brothers Big Sisters will provide mentoring for children, especially younger students, often in partnership with students at Winston-Salem State University who can introduce the younger students to the campus and give them a sense of college life.

The graduation-rate initiative is one of four collaborative efforts in which United Way initially will invest nearly $1.15 million to address community-wide problems.

The others efforts, selected from 18 proposals United Way received to address 10 priority issues it has identified, will focus on financial stability, assistance for prescription medications, and homelessness.

While United Way has not disclosed details about any of the other three efforts, the financial-stability initiative will include and significantly build on a collaborative project, launched in 2002, to spur home-ownership among the working poor, Aft says.

The program, which provides financial-literacy training and $4,000 to match $1,000 that families save in “individual development accounts,” has helped over 275 families own homes for the first time.

“We’re committed to addressing the underlying causes of these critical issues,” Aft says, “and we expect to work with others to achieve significant results.”

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